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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg May 23, 2016

Refugee aid head: World's poorest increasingly found in fragile/conflict nations

Global poverty increasingly is becoming concentrated in areas torn apart by conflict and unrest, International Rescue Committee president David Miliband recently told a Washington, D.C., audience.

"43 percent of the world's extreme poor now live in conflict and fragile states," Miliband said May 18, 2016, at the Center for Global Development. Speaking with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, Miliband made the case for the World Bank to increase its economic development operations.

"The mandate of the World Bank is to tackle poverty," Miliband said. "So the geography of poverty has changed fundamentally in the last 15 years."

We decided to see if the shift Miliband described is truly under way.

It is, though the limited data suggests it’s largely thanks to the success of fighting poverty in non-fragile countries.

The clearest evidence comes from this chart in a 2013 Brookings Institution report.

As you see, the number of people living in poverty in non-fragile states has declined at a much greater rate than those living in fragile states.

Gary Milante, who directs the security and development program for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said people should be careful about what they take away from this chart.

"Poverty is not becoming concentrated in fragile states because there are more fragile states," Milante said, "rather that fragile states don’t make progress the way the rest of the world does."

Be cautious with the data

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Every expert we reached warned us that while the overall trend is clear, the precise numbers are not.

When you think about it, you need two good yardsticks: one for poverty and one for fragility and conflict. And both have to be applied consistently over time. That’s not simple.

"The cutoffs for poverty and the methods to estimate household income have shifted over time," said Ben Oppenheim, who co-authored the report that included the 43 percent figure Miliband used.

Definitions of a fragile state may have shifted over time as well. Oppenheim and his colleagues used a list from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which relied partly on an index from the widely cited Fund for Peace.

Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told us it’s unclear if the Fund for Peace is "measuring the same thing over time."

"If Nigeria or Madagascar are added to the list one year, or taken off, you suddenly have spikes or dips of tens of millions of poor, so it would be much more difficult to discern the trends you're talking about," Milante added. The Brookings report, meanwhile, used a fixed list of countries, regardless of whether they moved in and out of state of conflict or fragility.

Our ruling

Miliband said that the geography of poverty has fundamentally changed in the past 15 years and is increasingly concentrated in conflict and fragile states. Broadly speaking, the numbers back that up -- because non-fragile states are doing a better job of raising people out of poverty.

The biggest cautionary note from experts is that we lack consistent measures of fragility and the list can change significantly from year to year.

The statement is accurate, but one has to apply it cautiously. We rate this claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

International Rescue Committee, Presentation in Washington, D.C. May 17, 2016

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, States of Fragility 2015, June 2015

Brookings Institution, The Final Countdown: Prospects for Ending Extreme Poverty by 2030 , April 24, 2013

Carleton University, Country Indicators for Foreign Policy, accessed May 18, 2016

Fund for Peace, Fragile States Index, accessed May 19, 2016

Email interview, Ben Oppenheim, senior fellow,  New York University Center on International Cooperation, May 18, 2016

Interview, Charles Kenny, senior fellow, Center for Global Development, May 17, 2016

Email interview, Gary Milante, programme director,  Stockholm International Peace Research Institute program on Security and Development, May 19, 2016

Email interview, David Carment, chair, Country Indicators for Foreign Policy, May 18, 2016

Email interview, Akshita Bhanjdeo, communications officer, International Rescue Committee, May 19, 2016


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